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'Boogie' Review: A fresh face for familiar hoop dreams

With 'Boogie,' Eddie Huang delivers a coming-of-age story that purposefully, and powerfully, looks different than ones audiences have seen before.

Taylor Takahashi and Taylour Paige play aspiring basketball star Alfred and his girlfriend Eleanor in writer-director Eddie Huang's feature debut.
(Image: © Focus Features)

Our Verdict

Eddie Huang combines some pointed (and profound) cultural specificities into an uneven but quite frankly essential coming-of-age story.

For

  • 🏀 Taylor Takahashi is terrific in the title role, navigating the character's own ambitions and the cultural lessons and obligations of his upbringing.
  • 🏀 Huang is invested in exploring the character's life with a specificity that too many other teen movies lack.

Against

  • 🏀 Huang's admirable resistance to focusing too heavily on the character's background to define him means he relies on a few genre cliches used too many times in the past.

In Boogie, a young Chinese-American athlete tries to hustle his way into a college scholarship, and hopefully the NBA. There’s a subplot in the film about coming-of-age stories and how literary standard bearers like The Catcher in the Rye neither recognize nor relate to the experiences of many teens who don’t come from Holden Caufield’s racial or economic background — a significant blind spot that Eddie Huang’s directorial debut tries to fill. But what Huang delivers in good intentions he sometimes lacks in execution, trying to capture a snapshot of ABC (American-Born Chinese) life and culture without letting it overwhelm or singly define his main character’s plight, ultimately striking an uneven balance between too many familiar storytelling touchstones and an admirably eclectic ensemble cast it sometimes becomes hard to sympathize with, even if you understand where they’re coming from.

Taylor Takahashi plays Alfred “Boogie” Chin, a basketball prodigy who transfers to a Queens high school in order to shore up eligibility for his athletic future — hopefully in the NBA, but first via a college scholarship. Mr. Chin (Perry Yung) encourages Boogie’s pie-in-the-sky dreams, but his mother (Pamelyn Chee) advises a more realistic path, putting him at the center of their ongoing daily conflicts, and forcing his future to shoulder the responsibility of rescuing the family as a whole, both interpersonally and financially. In the meantime, his only focus is on proving his skill by beating Monk (Bashar ‘Pop Smoke’ Jackson), the best player in the league, and winning the attention of Eleanor (Taylour Paige), a classmate with more than enough attitude to keep him on his toes.

When his mother hires Melvin (Mike Moh), a manager who agrees to help shape his image in order to attract college scouts, Boogie reluctantly goes along with the plan, especially after his temper alienates him from his coach (Domenick Lombardozzi) and his teammates. But when Melvin unexpectedly secures a contract to play professionally for a year in China, Boogie is forced to choose between pursuing the unlikely path to the NBA that his father has laid out for him and the less sexy but decidedly more lucrative offer his mother supports. With a long-awaited showdown against Monk looming on the horizon, Boogie must find a way to reconcile the aspirations of youthful self-actualization and the obligations of family and tradition without either violating his cultural responsibility or betraying what’s true in his heart. 

Huang, a writer, restauranteur and businessman who the New York Times once described as “a walking mixtape of postmodern cultural appropriation,” clearly harbors tremendous affection for authentic Chinese and Taiwanese culture, his own culture as an Asian-American, and different aspects of street culture that include hip-hop language, music, and dress. The way that he infuses the story with elements of the Chinese and Chinese-American experience, such as food and spiritual tradition, gives Boogie’s story a specificity that distinguishes it from those coming-of-age stories that his character observes do not give him a mirror to see himself. Moreover, Huang utilizes cultural templates like the Chinese calendar to help draw the characterizations of Mr. and Mrs. Chin, and eventually, Boogie himself, offering a subtext or explanation that provides insights into how and why he behaves the way he does above and beyond the more direct and visual inspirations of his parents’ volatile marriage.

Certainly the idea of a placing a young Asian-American athlete in a sport where he might not historically or traditionally find a lot of prominent representation gives Boogie a uniqueness and interest as a story. But you get the sense that Huang tries to resist leaning on that too heavily as the central fulcrum for his conflicts, instead folding in inter-cultural differences, economic considerations, and perhaps most importantly, the driving force of the main character’s personality. The problem becomes that as a storyteller Huang bites off more than he can chew in trying to juggle these elements without foregrounding any one of them, and so as a result some of the characterizations are muddled, and those conflicts become less clearly defined. On top of that, Huang eventually reverts to some very familiar story beats stripped from teen and sports movies across multiple decades that eventually undercut the distinct voice and ideas that the movie is trying to communicate.

For example, it’s easy to look at Boogie’s parents’ relationship and see where his woefully unpolished communications skills with Eleanor come from, but what’s less clear outside of his occasional directness why that works on her in the long term, when in just about every scene between the two of them it clearly pushes her away. Huang uses their relationship to explore some expectations and cultural stereotypes that are typically treated with dismissive humor if at all — and astutely observes how they become a source of anxiety even for a person from that culture who knows it isn’t true. But there are also some fair questions that go unanswered about what limits there are or should be between the bonds and obligations created by marriage or their background and the kind of toxicity shared between Boogie’s parents that exerts irreparable strain on two individuals, much less their offspring.

Newcomer Takahashi is a real find as Boogie, not simply convincing as a basketball prodigy but as this complex character navigating his way through a culture where he’s perceived as an outsider, even when he feels more affinity to it than his own. Admittedly, movies have eliminated my ability to discern what an actual teenager looks like, but if there’s a shortcoming to Takahashi’s performance it’s that he seems several years older than 18. Meanwhile, Pamelyn Chee and Perry Yung generate instantly and sometimes painfully recognizable parental figures whose own traditions and backgrounds guide them, and consequently, Boogie. Late rapper Pop Smoke exudes authority as the star player Boogie is determined to beat, but the character is given dimensionality too briefly, and too late for him to develop into much more than a monolithic adversary.

Will Boogie achieve his dreams without having to compromise? Or will Boogie discover that compromising is the best way to achieve his dreams? The film unfortunately yields to achievements and life lessons like these that many others before it have also employed, while also relying on a few cultural specifics to rescue some of its conflicts from being resolved dissatisfactorily. Additionally, Huang’s inexperience as a director becomes evident in some of the final scenes with regard to some shot sequences and reactions that obscure either the events on screen or their emotional impact. But even if it's not fully successful, as an alternative to the teen movies and sports achievement dramas that have become fodder over the last few decades for cinematic coming-of-age stories, Boogie offers something that’s overdue, and welcome, to this familiar canon.